American speculative fiction has always had a diversity problem, but it has never been a whites-only genre. Long before Samuel R. Delany, N. K. Jemisin, or Janelle Monae, African Americans have been using speculative tropes to examine our world and imagine another.
So here, for your reading pleasure, are five works of pre-1940 speculative fiction by African Americans, ranging from eerie regionalist tales; to hidden empire polemics; to technocratic pulp adventures.
To be clear, this list of five (well, six) is neither exhaustive nor all that representative, but rather idiosyncratic - these are five examples that I’ve read. So I’ve left off Martin Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1859/1861-2) –with its speculation about a mass slave rebellion in Cuba – for the simple fact that I’ve never read it.
In short: you should only use these five as a jumping off point - and there are even more to find.
1) Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) - The Conjure Woman
With his 1887 story “The Goophered Grapevine,” Charles Chesnutt became the first African-American author published in the Atlantic Monthly. Which basically marked him “approved for white consumption” for the next few years.*
And at first glance, “Goophered Grapevine” and the other stories in The Conjure Woman (1899) look safe for white people: after the Civil War, elderly Uncle Julius tells the new (educated, white) Northern plantation owners eerie, folksy tales from before the war.
There’s the eerie tale of the a slave whose life gets tied - Fisher King-style - to a cursed grapevine; and the story of the slave turned into a tree to escape - except the tree gets sawed up for lumber; and, as if presented by Rod Serling for our approval, there’s the story of a cruel white master turned into a black slave; etc.
Notice that Chesnutt is clear about slavery being bad, but never hints at current racial issues. Even the form would be comfortable for the Atlantic, since these stories fit in with the 1880s-90s boom in regionalist literature (give it up for Sarah Orne Jewett!), complete with “authentic” native dialect.
But read a few of these stories, and you’ll notice that Uncle Julius always profits from telling these tales to the white people. It’s almost as if he understands that performing a certain type of “blackness” would get him approval.
* Chesnutt lost this status when he wrote The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a novel about the 1898 Wilmington race riot. Seriously: literary taste-maker and erstwhile Chesnutt-champion, William Dean Howells complained that Marrow was “bitter, bitter.” Which is kind of like saying, “Why does your book about lynching have to be such a bummer?”
2) Sutton Griggs (1872–1933) - Imperium in Imperio
Like most Americans, when I hear “black utopia,” I think of Texas. Especially in the 1890s, Texans’ commitment to equality... I can’t keep this joke up. Point is, when Sutton Griggs imagined an African American nation in Texas, he really let his speculative freak flag fly.
Although, in fact, most of Imperium in Imperio (1899) isn’t speculative at all - only melodramatic. It follows two friends - dark-skinned Belton and light-skinned Bernard - as they find work, fall in love with women, escape getting lynched and dissected (Belton only), etc. Classic melodrama.
The speculative weirdness begins halfway through, when Belton reveals to Bernard that there’s a secret black government that exists within the United States. This secret Imperium is headquartered in Waco, TX, where nothing bad has ever happened to a secretive group.
The last chapters are long speeches by now-militant separatist Bernard, who wants to take Texas by force; and civil rights incrementalist Belton, who believes that black people can live safely in America with white people. Which is a boring end to the melodrama, but a good reminder of some of the arguments going on in the black intellectual public sphere at the time.
3) Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930) - Of One Blood
Like Imperium, Of One Blood (1902-3) can be confusing from a genre POV; in it, Hopkins mixes adventure, Gothic, Utopian, and realist tropes. So here’s a drinking game to go along with scholarly articles on Hopkins’s mesmerism-and-lost city novel: take a shot every time the academic uses the word “unruly.”
Here’s the basic plot: black Reuel Briggs is a poor Harvard medical student passing for white, who marries a woman named Dianthe; villainous white Aubrey Livingston (did I need to say “white” with that name?) sends Briggs off to Ethiopia on an expedition and seduces Dianthe - with mesmerism!
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Reuel discovers a hidden, highly-advanced city - and, gosh!, his birthmark proves he’s royalty there; but after a warning vision from his dead mother, Reuel returns to Aubrey and Dianthe - and proves that all three of them are siblings.
Which teaches us: “of one blood” is a good thing when trying to heal racial hatreds, but a bad pick-up line.
From a genre-history standpoint, Of One Blood is an interesting attempt to coopt the lost African city trope for an anti-racist message.
4) W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 - 1963) - Dark Princess
Dark Princess (1928), not so much. Like Grigg’s and Hopkins’ books above, Dark Princess mixes episodes of realism and romance with its speculative premise.
For instance, protagonist Matthew Towns cannot graduate med school because he can’t do the required obstetric work on white women. Realism! So he runs off to less-racist Europe, where he gallantly protects Indian Princess Kautilya from racists. Romance!
And then he learns that she’s the head of a world-wide organization of the “darker” races dedicated to fighting Western imperialism. Speculative fiction! Yes, it’s another secret group, but this time tied into Du Bois’s interest in internationalism.
Along the way, Matthew confronts corrupt Chicago politicians, life as a Pullman porter, an attempted lynching, an attempted bombing, etc. But don’t worry, it has a happy ending: he and Kautilya have a son who is “Messenger and Messiah to all the Darker Worlds.”
5) George S. Schuyler - Black No More and Black Empire
If you’re getting tired of melodrama/romance about secret organizations, then I have half-a-treat for you.
George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) is a satiric masterpiece about what happens when racial differences get erased: Doctor Crookman invents a device that can make African Americans white, and everyone from the KKK to the NAACP is upset.
Schuyler - called the Black Mencken and published in the White Mencken’s American Mercury - was not afraid of starting fights; and Black No More is full of thinly-veiled portraits of real people, including Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois (“Dr. Shakespeare Agammemnon Beard”). It’s a funny and troubling book, full of comic-turns to melodramatic tropes. After the Chesnutt stories, this might be my favorite book on this list.
The irony is that Schuyler would hate to be on this list. Schuyler was (more-or-less) a conservative curmudgeon who thought race was a distraction. For instance, his most famous essay is the 1926 “Negro-Art Hokum” (in short: Harlem Renaissance, Harlem Shmenaissance).
So some people were confused when they learned that Schuyler - under the name Samuel I. Brooks - wrote the newspaper serials "Black Internationale" and "Black Empire" (collected as Black Empire ). In these stories, the charismatic and ruthless Dr. Belsidus organizes a secret, black organization to take back Africa from the Western imperial powers.
Unlike Black No More, Black Empire is begging to be turned into a serial movie, with very distinct episodes of adventure: dropping gas bombs and plague-ridden rats over Europe, inventing a death ray, fighting off evil African cannibals…
Wait, what? Doesn’t that last one belong in something a little more Tarzan-y and less anti-imperial-y? Yeah, don’t make the same mistake Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes - of thinking this story demonstrates Schuyler’s conflicted feelings about race. In many ways, Black Empire is the story of how Americans use technology to conquer Africa. The fact that they’re African Americans is almost besides the point to Schuyler.
What other early works of speculative fiction by African American authors can you recommend? Please share in the comments below.